EVERETT — Alaska Airlines’ plan to boost its flight schedule at Paine Field to more than a dozen daily round trips is on hold until January.
In June, before the COVID-19 Delta variant surged, the Seattle-based carrier planned this fall to operate 13 daily flights and serve 10 destinations from the Everett terminal.
But the Delta variant prompted travelers to postpone or cancel trips, causing some airlines to scale back their flight schedules.
Alaska Airlines — the only airline serving the two-gate terminal after United Airlines ended operations there earlier this month — expects to operate 12 peak-day departures from Paine Field beginning Jan. 4, Alaska spokesman Ray Lane said.
“Peak days are our busiest periods,” Lane said. “We sometimes reduce flights on other days when fewer guests are traveling to match capacity to demand.”
The lag in business travel, another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a factor in Alaska suspending service to Los Angeles and San Francisco from Everett, Lane said.
Alaska eliminated daily service to Los Angeles in June due to a lack of demand and replaced it with a daily flight to San Francisco. But the San Francisco run met the same fate and was recently discontinued due to a lack of demand, Lane said.
San Francisco is “more of a destination for business travelers,” Lane said, adding that business travel is still in a recovery period.
Alaska expects to resume service to the Bay Area next spring or summer, Lane said.
Before the pandemic, business travelers accounted for about 70% of the terminal’s clientele, said Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports, the privately-owned firm that built and operates the two-gate terminal.
Until business travel picks up, the airline travel industry is in for a bumpy ride, Smith said.
“Business travel is an important part of the revenue stream,” he said. Smith also noted that “the airlines, not just Alaska, are dealing with pilot shortages,” delaying the return of some flights and flight frequencies. The Biden Administration’s federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for companies with 100 or more employees could also delay the return of some pilots to the cockpit. As an example, the Allied Pilots Association, the collective bargaining agent for 14,000 American Airlines pilots, reports that about 4,000 of those pilots haven’t yet been vaccinated. Alaska Air Group, which operates Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, recently imposed a vaccine requirement for its 22,000 employees.
Despite the challenges, Smith is optimistic. Propeller Airports, said Smith, “is well- funded and will make it through no matter how long it takes. We will be here.”
In 2019, Global Infrastructure Partners, a New York-based investment fund, took a sizeable stake in the Paine Field passenger terminal, according to Reiter Law, which represented Propeller in the deal. Global’s investment was made on behalf of the Washington State Investment Board, which manages retirement funds for firefighters, teachers, police and other public employees. Global manages some $75 billion worth of assets.
Business travelers fill less than a third of all airline seats but generate an oversize share of airline passenger revenues, an estimated 50% or more, according to the trade group Airlines for America.
Corporate travel is exhibiting signs of recovery, but it could be a year or more before a full return, analysts say.
Two-thirds of U.S. companies say they’ve already returned to pre-pandemic levels of business travel or plan to within the next year, according to a Business & Industry U.S. Economic Outlook Survey by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.
Still, 20% of firms said it could be more than a year before they resume previous levels of travel, the report said. Another 10% said they don’t expect to return to pre-pandemic business travel levels at any point.
Alaska Airlines currently operates six peak-day flights to Boise, Las Vegas, Orange County, Palm Springs, Phoenix and Spokane from Everett, Lane said.
The carrier plans to add Tucson, a seasonal service to the schedule on Nov. 19.
“We prioritized the return of leisure destinations from Paine Field for this winter,” Lane said.
Flights to Portland, one of Alaska’s major hubs, and San Diego, a major connection point for the airline, will resume in January, Lane said.
In January, three cities — Boise, Portland and Spokane — will have twice-daily departures from Paine.
The other six destinations are Las Vegas, Orange County, Palm Springs, Phoenix, San Diego and Tucson.
“We’re beginning to ramp up flights in Everett,” Lane said. “Operations at Paine Field are going well for Horizon Air, our sister carrier, which operates all our flights in Everett.”
In February 2020, United Airlines, which had six slots at the terminal, scaled back its service and eliminated three daily flights to San Francisco. The Chicago-based carrier continued to serve its Denver hub.
As announced in July, United Airlines discontinued passenger service this month at Paine Field, ending its one remaining flight, a daily Denver departure.
Alaska Airlines does not currently have plans to add a Denver flight, Lane said.
Kenneth Bé was a passenger on United Airlines’ last Everett departure, Flight 5498 to Denver, which left the gate at 9 a.m. on Oct. 4. Bé, an Omaha resident, is a frequent visitor to Snohomish County.
“It was great to be able to land at Paine Field and be minutes away from my destination,” said Bé, who connects in Denver. “’I’ll have to figure out a different route to Everett with Alaska Airlines or through Sea-Tac.”
When the two-gate terminal opened at the Snohomish County-owned airport in March 2019, Alaska Airlines offered 18 daily departures and United Airlines offered six daily departures.
In its first year of operations, the terminal served more than one million travelers.